1938 Cadillac 60 Special
1938 Cadillac 60 Special
Photo: Bill Vance

by Bill Vance

The 1930’s was not a good time to be selling luxury cars. The Depression had shrunk the new car market, especially expensive ones, and some luxury marques like Peerless, Pierce-Arrow, and Marmon, disappeared. Others such as Packard, were wounded.

Although Cadillac had the security of General Motors Corp., it, too, had to watch the bottom line because GM head Alfred P. Sloan, Jr., wasn’t about to tolerate a money loser for very long.

Cadillac was poorly positioned for the ’30s. Powered by V-8 engines since 1915, in 1930 they added a V-16, and a few months later, a V-12. By 1934 Cadillac’s sales had slid to about 20 percent of their 1928 level.

Cadillac’s response was the Series 60 model, with a price slotted between Cadillac’s LaSalle, and the lowest priced Cadillac.

To reduce costs it shared the GM “B” bodyshell with LaSalle, Oldsmobile and Buick. It had a 135 horsepower side-valve V-8 engine and independent front suspension. Although smaller, lighter and less powerful than other Cadillacs, it carried the prestige and quality of the Cadillac name, and helped more than double Cadillac sales.

The success of the Series 60 paved the way for an even more successful model, the 1938 Sixty Special, the most significant 1930s Cadillac. This car really consolidated the career of Cadillac’s Bill Mitchell, hired as Cadillac’s stylist two years earlier by the legendary Harley Earl.

Californian Earl’s GM reputation dated from the first LaSalle, a lower priced Cadillac stablemate introduced in 1927. It was so successful that Earl was asked to establish the corporation’s Art and Colour Section, formally introducing the discipline of styling to the auto industry. It evolved into the styling department in the 1930s.

Earl had an eye for talent as well as for style. He was a strong willed individual, and when he appointed the 23 year old Mitchell as Cadillac’s chief stylist in 1936, there were some raised eyebrows, but no dissenters. It would take young Mitchell only two years to vindicate Earl.

Earl instructed Mitchell to design a new LaSalle model based on the Series 60 Cadillac. The Cadillac was rather conservative, and Mitchell’s mandate was to design a car at the sportier end of the spectrum.

As the beauty of the design emerged, and the expenses mounted, it was decided after some soul searching that this less-than-conservative car should be a Cadillac. The 1938 Sixty Special was the result.

The Sixty Special broke new ground in several styling areas, and would have a profound impact not only on Cadillac, but on all American automobile shapes for years to come.

Mitchell stretched the Series 60’s wheelbase from 3150 to 3226 mm (124 to 127 in.), and lowered the frame to reduce the overall height by 76 mm (3.0 in.). This allowed him to maintain the same interior headroom as other Cadillacs.

He eliminated running boards, following Cord’s lead of two years earlier. This enhanced the car’s appearance and allowed the body sides to be pushed out, making it a true six-passenger vehicle.

The front fenders were softly rounded and stretched back almost horizontally to the front doors. The trunk was fully integrated into the body, rather than looking like an add-on. The almost horizontal trunk line predicted the rear deck as we know it today. Doors were all forward hinged, a feature that would become universal.

Mitchell eliminated the body moulding around the greenhouse, giving the design a more integrated look. Thick window frames were replaced by thin chromed ones, providing better visibility, and anticipating the hardtop convertible look of the late ’40s.

The Sixty Special’s well balanced, beautifully integrated style won instant acceptance. Despite an economic setback in 1938, it outsold the Series 60 from which it was derived by about three to one. This occurred in spite of a higher price, and the fact that it came only as a four-door sedan, while the Series 60 had a full line of body styles.

Knowing that it had a winner, Cadillac took the Sixty Special through 1939 and ’40 without significant changes, although a wider, more massive grille was fitted.

In 1941, the headlamps were integrated into the fenders, which were extended back into the doors. Rear fender skirts were added, and these relatively minor changes transformed the look of the car, giving it a more limousine-like appearance.

The Sixty-Special nameplate was continued into 1942 but lost some of its identity, gradually growing similar to other Cadillacs. Thus the 1938-1941 Cadillac Sixty-Specials are looked upon as the more desirable collectibles.

It was a bold and inspired design by William Mitchell, one of the finest in his portfolio. It contributed significantly to his career; he became GM’s chief stylist when Earl retired in 1958.

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